Taking another whack at the Olympic distance triathlon

My first attempt at an Olympic distance triathlon earlier this year was pretty much the most humbling racing experience I’ve had in a long time.  I’ve been underprepared for events before – I still remember the way my first and only XTERRA race basically picked me up by the scruff of my neck and smushed my face in a mud puddle – but never quite to that extent.  So I swore to myself that the next time I tackled the distance, I was going to be ready for it.

Problem was, I couldn’t find another race this season that met two specific requirements. The first is that the triathlon couldn’t be so late in the season that it would overlap with training for the Clearwater Marathon, which I’m planning on running in January.  I’m really hoping that this will be the time that I break four hours, and so my plan is to focus entirely on marathon training instead of scattering my attention all over the place and hoping that will be enough to carry me through.  And who knows, maybe the fourth time will be the charm to help me break four hours?

The second is that the triathlon had to have a swim leg that is 1.5 km long.  Now, I’m not sure when and how this happened, but it seems like nowadays a lot of race organizers are billing their Olympic/international distance triathlons with half-mile swims. This will not do.  I want that longer swim.  (What’s wrong with me? Actually, don’t answer that.)  I won’t feel like I have fully tackled the Olympic distance triathlon until I get my 1.5 km swim, and really, I kind of don’t like that all of these Olympic distance triathlons are cutting the swim short and still calling themselves Olympic distance.  It’d be like race organizers promoting a marathon but lopping off the last 10K and still calling it a marathon. Don’t do that.  Just…don’t.

Anyway, I was ready to defer my dream of avenging my sorry-ass performance at St. Anthony’s until the 2014 season, but then, the email appeared in my inbox.  An inaugural triathlon series in Naples.  Olympic distance. In September.  With a 1.5 km swim.  PERFECTION.  We signed up that day.

Now I’m a couple of weeks into training – albeit a bit of a reduced training load thanks to a bicep strain I sustained while showing off my mad chin-up skillz to my husband (stupid, so fucking stupid) – and this time around I am doing my best to stick as closely to the schedule as I possibly can.  This means I have been getting up at early so I can train before work and sitting in rush-hour traffic so I can get my pool workouts in at the only public Olympic pool in the county that is indoor (because, fun fact about Florida, it storms like a bloody monsoon every afternoon between May and October).  Today, for instance, I will most likely sit in traffic so I can get to the pool to swim even though I’ve been up since 3:30 a.m. and really deep in my heart, I want nothing more than to return to bed as soon as my morning shift comes to a close.  But fortune doesn’t favor the lazy asshole who wants to sleep all the time, or whatever the saying is.  And so, instead of crawling into bed and falling asleep with the Bill Bryson book I’m reading tented over my face…I swim.

Okay, now it’s time to pull on your hipwaders, because shit’s about to get deep.

Early on, Brian tried to gently suggest that maybe it was okay if I didn’t throw myself into training for this triathlon, and I responded pretty adamantly that it was important to me that I do this right.  In fact, my reaction was so strong that I spent some time trying to figure out why exactly I cared this much.  I mean, let’s be real – the only person who cares about the way I do in a triathlon is me.  I’ve found that other people either don’t care at all, or they care but only in that they think its cool that I did one. Other triathletes might care a smidge, but for the most part, I’m really the only one who cares about how I do in a triathlon.

And yet St. Anthony’s really bothered me because I knew, deep in my heart, that I could have done better.  I don’t mean like I could have dug down deeper during the actual race and pulled out some amazing performance.  I mean that I could have done better had I pulled myself together psychologically and trained the way the distance demanded. The more I get into racing, the more I find this to be true.  It’s no longer enough for me to just show up at the starting line and make my way from point A to point B.  I need to show up at the starting line knowing I did everything I could do to get ready for it. Otherwise I feel like I’m cheating myself out of the opportunity to have an amazing experience.

A passage from Joan Didion’s essay “On Self Respect” keeps going through my mind when I think about this:

Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception. The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself; no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions.

The fact is, it doesn’t matter that no one else cares how I do when I compete.  The only person for whom it does matter is me, because in the end, I can’t hide from myself in that well-lit back alley.  I’ll always know the truth about how I tried or how I didn’t try or if the reasons I give for my lackluster performance are actual reasons or if they are excuses meant to hide the less-noble things happening beneath the surface.

It’s a little weird for me to talk about racing in terms of self-respect, but the truth is that a lack of self-respect has been a pervasive theme in my life, up until my late 20s.  I have some thoughts as to why the Self-Respect Fairy passed me by when I was younger and basically didn’t show her face again until I had stumbled through several years of humiliation and suffering, but the important thing is that I did eventually figure things out and it did truly change my life for the better.  Because now instead of slinking around, wasting all my energy on putting up a facade of awesome to hide all of my flaws, I own who I am, all of it. I own my mistakes and my weaknesses, but I also own my accomplishments and my strengths. Now I take responsibility for who I am and the choices I make, which is scary but also very freeing.

What’s more, because I no longer feel like admitting my weaknesses is like offering up my soft white underbelly to be slashed to bits by the world, I feel more confident taking risks and trying new things, because failure doesn’t mean I’m worthless. It just means I need to try harder or maybe do something differently or maybe even try something else entirely.  (And sometimes what we think of as failure is not really failure at all if you come at it from a slightly different angle.  At least, this has been true for me.)

So that’s the mindset I bring to my life as an athlete – and also my life as a journalist, as a writer, as a human being.  That’s why I’m not really satisfied to slack off through training.  I mean, I could, but I’ll always know that I half-assed it, and that’s just not acceptable to me. Not anymore.

29 responses to “Taking another whack at the Olympic distance triathlon

    • “Named and numbered your demons” – I like that. And yes, I’ve been fortunate in that all of my demons showed up in the first quarter-century of my life, and that my husband – who is a therapist – has done a lot to help me deal with them.

      And likewise, good for you. 🙂

  1. Thank you for a great Post. I like running and do a modest 5 miles, my goal is to get better, your training inspires me. I also concur with your thoughts on self respect completely and greatest learning of my life has been to acknowledge and reinforce ” I am enough”. It is indeed liberating.Thanks much and very best wishes!

    • “I am enough” – I love the way you put that. It’s a tough lesson to learn but once you do, it truly is liberating. Thanks for your comment. 🙂

      • Most welcome and you are very kind 🙂 Absolutely, its the most liberating thing,so truly relate to your post because it took a long time for me too to realize that we should never forsake ourselves:) have a nice weekend!

  2. #1 I too HATE when they shorten the swim portion of a triathlon. You simply cannot call a triathlon ‘Olympic’ if it doesn’t meet the distance requirements, and I don’t understand why that isn’t a rule.
    #2 I agree with you, I hate to half-ass anything and if my time gets slower, I feel completely unaccomplished. For me, I’m racing my former self and I constantly want to grow and do better. Otherwise, why am I paying people to track and time the damn thing if I could get slower at home without an audience?

    Keep up the hard work!

    • 1. THANK YOU. I feel like so many people hate the swim leg that they are excited about having the opportunity to do a longer course without a corresponding longer swim so I feel like a killjoy when I complain about this, but it really does annoy me. But then I’ve often been astonished by the lack of rigor when it comes to the distances of these things. Like, a bike leg that is billed as 25 miles is actually 26.3 miles, or the 5k run leg ends up being 3.4 miles. Maybe it’s just because I came to multisport through running but the lack of consistency with the distances is super aggravating to me.

      2. I laughed out loud at this “Otherwise, why am I paying people to track and time the damn thing if I could get slower at home without an audience?” I get that some people race solely for the atmosphere and camaraderie, but I am not one of those people.

  3. I SO relate to this. My competing is to do with self-respect as well, which is why I’ve always held myself back (until now).

    And the one and only time I’ve injured myself from lifting weights was when I was trying to show off as well…. jumping into heavy straight-legged deadlifts with no warm up = pulled hamstring!

    • LOL why do we do this to ourselves? My best friend told me about how she wrecked her hamstring because she got all excited about being able to get into the splits, and then she wasn’t able to do them again for months because she hurt herself so badly. Irrational exuberance, I suppose.

  4. Good luck – keep up the training! (3:30 am though?! Is that for work or training? I thought my 5am start was early!)
    Same here re. injury. I’ve had a dodgy shoulder and 1st time in the gym, I happened to glance on the olympic bar and thought “I wonder if I can still clean the max I manager before?” Answer? After a couple of months not lifting heavy and a couple of shoulder injuries, No. And now it hurts again. Bummer.

    • Oh god, work. The most I can manage for training is 5:30 a.m. and that is a relatively new thing that I have been forcing myself to do. I bow in awe of your 5 a.m. start.

      I hope it is not weird that hearing about your injury makes me feel better about my own. I get pretty angry at myself for getting hurt, so hearing about others’ injuries reminds me that it’s actually a very normal part of being an athlete. BTW I hope it heals quickly so you can get back after it in the gym.

      • Ha ha, we’re all idiots! There are a couple of things I’m shocked I can do (I wish chin ups were one!) and I just have to check I’ve still got it!
        Sorry, 5am is getting up for a 6am swim as I have to eat something first – not actually swimming at5 although I’m always shocked that people are getting out when we arrive!!

      • This has seriously been one of my biggest barriers to joining a master’s swim team – getting up that early to go swim. (Fortunately I think they have evening sessions too – SCORE.) I am coherent enough to put on shoes and stumble around the trail for a while, but not coherent enough to swim without drowning.

  5. 3:30am good lord!

    I still struggle with giving 100% in my training sessions (unless I have someone giving me (nice) grief, which is why I like training in a group) but it is true I do feel disappointed with myself afterwards.

    “The fact is, it doesn’t matter that no one else cares how I do when I compete. The only person for whom it does matter is me, because in the end, I can’t hide from myself in that well-lit back alley. I’ll always know the truth about how I tried or how I didn’t try or if the reasons I give for my lackluster performance are actual reasons or if they are excuses meant to hide the less-noble things happening beneath the surface.”

    I love this paragraph, it is so true and well-written.

    • I had to fill in for my colleague, who works the morning shift. (We work for a 24/7 news station and so hours are often astonishingly scary. Like, I had to get up this morning at 4! On a Saturday! *dies*)

      I read something recently that talked about “giving 100%” and how our 100% changes from day to day, depending on our environment and our energy levels and all that. So for me, giving 100% during training usually means showing up, doing my pre-planned workout and trying to be present and focused during my workout as I possibly can. I try hard not to kill myself at every training session because not only am I not capable of it, but it would mean certain injury, and I am soooo not interested in that. And also sometimes I’m just not feeling it, and that’s okay too.

  6. This is great thank you for sharing. I’m not into racing but know what you mean about setting these high standards for yourself w/fitness. I do the same thing. But if I do share my training plans w/others I get that “and why do you do this??”. Nobody quite understands, and actually I don’t talk about it with too many others anymore because of this. That sense of accomplishment, and the fact that we tried and tried and DID IT…. is so powerful, we need to keep challenging ourselves again and again….just because.

    • Thanks for the comment! There’s definitely something very exhilarating about setting a goal and accomplishing it. It’s a pleasure for its own sake. Anything else that comes along with it is just icing on top of the already excellent cake. 🙂

  7. You’ve give me food for thought about examining my motivations for pushing for PR’s (I’m also hoping to break the 4-hour-marathon threshold this fall in either Chicago or Space Coast). I’ve also found the closer I get to 50 the more motivated I am to ‘see what I can accomplish.’ Excuses – especially for sleeping in – are far too easy for me, but I don’t want to look back and wonder how much better I could have been if I’d only taken training more seriously. It’s also a ton of fun breaking barriers I once thought were out of reach (sub 50-minute 10K is my latest), and running faster than I did in my early 30’s when I thought I was in pretty-good shape. (Also, Re: distances – it’s killing me that my upcoming first tri is being billed as a ‘sprint’ but the swim is only 400 yards (which seems typical around here). I’ll be happy enough to have accomplished a tri, but won’t in good conscience be able to say I’ve completed even a sprint-distance triathlon.)

    • Hey, congrats on reaching your 10K goal! I totally understand the thrill of hitting goals you thought were once out of reach, whether it’s completing a race or hitting a specific time or going further than before. Achieving goals in general is really awesome, but when you couple that with the flood of adrenaline/endorphins that comes with serious physical activity – it’s just incredibly pleasurable and thrilling for me.

      Good luck to you on your attempts to break 4 in the marathon. My husband has done both of those races and he enjoyed them, even though heat ended up being a factor in both of them.

  8. You work hard to have good times because you know if I found out you were a 6hr Marathoner, I would unsubscribe from your blog 😉

  9. Pingback: Give Yourself a Break | Man Bicep·

  10. I loved everything you wrote in this post (as per usual)! But the only thing that I can really focus on is the book you are reading. So which Bill Bryson is it?

    • Thanks! It’s “In a Sunburned Country” – the one he wrote about Australia. I adore his work and will pretty much read anything he writes, ever.

  11. I love that you just put it out there that you are doing this tri for you.

    The other day I was listening to a podcast and they discussed the concept of a “Failure Quotient” – that you have to have the ability to fail and learn from it in order to succeed. I loved the idea. And reading your post it seems like that it is a huge underlying thread in what you talk about too!

    Good luck with the training. And rock the swim 🙂

    • Ooh, “failure quotient” – I like that. One of the biggest and most important lessons I’ve learned as an adult is to embrace failure as a natural part of the learning and growth cycle. I think a lot of people look at failure as external evidence of an internal deficiency (at least, I did for a long time) when really, failure is an inevitable outcome of putting yourself out there and taking risks. What makes it a negative thing is failing to learn from it or using it as a reason to never take a risk again.

      Can you tell me what podcast you were listening to? I’d like to listen to it myself!

      • The FQ discussion was on the Vinnie Tortorich Angriest Trainer podcast (I know it’s not to everyone’s liking) which has some gems in between all the chat. It’s a very light podcast, easy to listen to when running or bike training. Another podcast I’m liking for deeper interviews is Rich Roll.

        By the way I hate short swims too. As my swim coach says, some people just need to open the fridge and help themselves to a can of toughen up!

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